Rabih El-Khoury on the challenges and triumphs of Arab film

Much of Rabih El-Khoury’s working life has been dedicated to the promotion of Arab cinema. (Supplied)
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Updated 06 October 2020

Rabih El-Khoury on the challenges and triumphs of Arab film

  • Sudanese and Saudi cinema are blossoming

LONDON: When Rabih El-Khoury first visited Berlin for its international film festival in 2007, he was struck by the similarity of the German capital’s Wall, which used to separate East from West, and the Green Line that demarcated his hometown of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. That similarity has informed his perspective on Berlin — where he has now lived for six years —ever since.

El-Khoury works as diversity manager for Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum Frankfurt (DFF) and is curator of Alfilm, the city’s Arab Film Festival. This year he has also curated the UK’s 2020 SAFAR film festival, organized by the Arab British Centre, bringing his extensive experience of covering Arab cinema to the event.

He appreciates Berlin for its “openness and multiculturalism,” while conceding that “it has its fair share of racism and prejudice, such as you would find anywhere else.” But, as he told Arab News, it was Beirut that “made me who I am today.”

Rabih El-Khoury works as diversity manager for Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum Frankfurt (DFF) and is curator of Alfilm, the city’s Arab Film Festival. (Supplied)

A few weeks ago he returned to the Lebanese capital with a sense of dread to make contact with family and friends in the aftermath of the devastating port explosion and to see the results for himself.

What he found, alongside the obvious blast damage, was a general loss of hope among the people. This, he said, “was much more heartbreaking for me than the physical devastation.”

“People have very little confidence in the future so long as the political elites stay in power. They cannot even retrieve their money from the banks. Basically, leaving is on everyone’s minds, but it is very difficult to leave without money.  The people have not only lost relatives and homes — their dreams have also been stolen,” he said.

Rabih El-Khoury with Filmmaker Vatch Boulghourjian and Score Composer Cynthia Zaven of Tramontane at Alfilm Berlin. (Supplied)

He added that a scene from 2014’s “The Valley,” by Lebanese director Ghassan Salhab, came to mind as he surveyed the ruins of his city because it contained a reference to the possibility that “Beirut may disappear.”

Another painful aspect of his return to his home city was the fact that the renowned Metropolis Art House Cinema — on of the few in the region that showed films that did not make it onto commercial screens — closed its doors in January due to a business dispute.

El-Khoury joined the Metropolis as administrator when it opened in 2006 and eventually became managing director. 

“There is no cinema at the moment and the team has been shattered by the repercussions of the blast and the political situation,” he said. “It is very difficult for them to continue but they have a fantastic spirit and a director who is very keen to push things forward and make sure that culture becomes available again to everyone.”

A screengrab from “In the Last Days of the City.” (Supplied)

DFF is raising money to that end, El-Khoury said, as well as for filmmakers in Beirut “who have lost so much.”

Much of El-Khoury’s working life has been dedicated to the promotion of Arab cinema — he has organized more than 20 Arab film weeks around the world. And despite the current situation, he sees many promising signs for the industry in the MENA region.

“Sudanese and Saudi Arabian cinema are blossoming. There are so many emerging talents, and filmmakers such as Amjad Abu Alala and Suhaib Gasmelbari in Sudan and Shahad Ameen and Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan in Saudi Arabia offering broader subjects,” he said. “With emerging countries, you are seeing completely different things compared to countries such as Egypt with a longer history and experience of film.

A screengrab from “Tramontane.” (Supplied)

“We cannot yet talk about an Arab film industry as such, but we are advancing in the right direction,” he continued. “We see there is support for filmmakers and producers to come up with new and exciting projects, but funding — especially state funding — will be very tricky over the next few years across the world due to the pandemic.”

He expressed his disappointment at the apparent cessation of the Dubai Film Festival.

“It’s a real loss, not just for the UAE, but for Arab film generally, because so much was achieved. It was a fantastic initiative and many people were discovered during the festival. The problem with the Gulf, in my view, is that so many initiatives are launched but not maintained,” he said.

But overall he maintains a positive outlook: “I am looking forward to seeing what will emerge and how people reflect on their societies,” he concluded.

Tom Hanks talks ‘News of the World’ and the comeback of Westerns

Tom Hanks stars in ‘News of the World.’ (File/AFP)
Updated 29 November 2020

Tom Hanks talks ‘News of the World’ and the comeback of Westerns

LOS ANGELES: Depending on who you ask, Westerns are either on their way out, gone for good, or making a slow comeback in Hollywood. At one point a staple genre of the film industry, the classic Western rarely makes it onto the movie theater marquee these days. Big-budget flops such as 2013’s “The Lone Ranger” have served to usher the genre out of popularity, but critical successes such as Quinten Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” “The Hateful 8” and the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” are doing their part to keep Westerns from dying off completely. 

On Christmas Day, “News of the World” will be doing its part to keep the Western genre alive, and hopefully bag Universal Pictures a few Oscar nominations. Arab News heard more from the film’s star Tom Hanks.

“I love listening to a great story as much as I like telling one, and that’s why I was so excited about playing Kidd,” Hanks said, giving audiences a taste of what his performance has in store. “He is a storyteller. He is driven, emotional. He is noble. He is moved by a pursuit of the truth.”

Hanks plays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a former army officer who, after the death of his family, makes his living traveling around Texas reading the news to illiterate townsfolk and entertaining with true tales from across the world.

“'News of the World' takes place in the shadow of the Civil War’s end. There is defeat. There is strife and anger. Because of the war, Kidd came back to having nothing left,” he told us. “Reading the news gave him a purpose. He got up. He collected the stories. He delivered a reading and then he moved onto the next town.”

 As he continues in his travels, Kidd comes across Johanna, a young girl who had been taken from her pioneer family and raised by the Kiowa Native Americans. 

“She has no idea who her family is,” Hanks shared. “Burdened by his own decency, Kidd is going to have to return her to her family and this coming from a man who has lost any semblance of what a family is.”

The movie is adapted from the novel of the same name by author Paulette Jiles, and while it is not based on a true story, its main characters are inspired by real people. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is based on the ancestor of a friend of Jiles’ — the similarly named historical figure Captain Adolphus Caesar Kydd — who performed readings of newspapers in the 1870s. Johanna is inspired by the more well-known historical tale of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was kidnapped and raised by the Comanche Native Americans.

Interestingly, there seems to be a disagreement between Jiles and film director Paul Greengrass about their goals in portraying the story of “News of the World.” In a 2016 interview with Texas Monthly, Jiles stated that she had no intention of making a commentary on contemporary politics with the original book, preferring to “move people into the world of imagination.”

Greengrass, on the other hand, told reporters at Vanity Fair that he saw the film, which features families and communities in conflict with each other, as representative of the societal divide in the modern-day US. With these opposing ideas woven into the fabric of the story, it will be interesting to see what audiences take away after watching.

It is clear what Universal is hoping to take away, and that is an Oscar. “News of the World” sees Hanks and Greengrass working together again after their previous collaboration, 2013’s “Captain Phillips.” While not an Oscar-winner, “Captain Phillips” received six nominations as well as attention at the Golden Globes and other award shows. With the film releasing at the tail end of the Oscar season, and a road-tested team of director and star, “News of the World” could be Universal’s best shot at an award for the 2020 film year.

Between award season dreams and the hopeful continuation of the Western genre, there is a lot riding on “News of the World.” At its core, however, the movie promises A-list performances and a compelling story full of action and heart.

“Kidd goes through something that saves him as much as he saves Johanna. She gave him a true purpose,” Hanks told us. “His real message is ‘when you have love in your life you will be alright.’ That’s what all great stories are. It’s just pure love for another human being.”